How Mentoring Sparked a Movement: Q&A with Derrin Slack
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I am the CEO of ProAct Indy, which I founded in 2010 to give at-risk youth the opportunity to be givers and creators of service, rather than receivers of it. In addition to serving as CEO of ProAct, I serve in a national role as the Senior Director of Youth Training at the Jefferson Awards Foundation, where my role is to develop service-learning curriculum, facilitate leadership conferences and support more than 5,000 boys and girls across the country to ensure they develop leadership skills through service.
None of this would be possible without the support of my beautiful wife, Kala, and our two children London (4) and Tyson (10). I truly value my time with my family and appreciate every time we get to spend together.
In my free time, I enjoy going to the movies. I have seen every blockbuster movie there is, and I will go toe to toe with the best of them in movie trivia. I also enjoy hiking and camping, traveling and game nights. Fun fact about me: I am an amateur daredevil. I love engaging in risky activities like skydiving, bungee jumping, swimming in large bodies of water and just about anything that screams, “Hey Derrin! You want an adrenaline rush?!”
Can you share the story of ProAct Indy?
Raised by a preacher dad and prayer warrior mom, I spent half my childhood days at my local church. But my questions about the Bible and uncertainties in my life and faith seemed to irritate my Sunday school teachers. One teacher even slapped me on the hand and said, “Faith means believing in things not seen.” My questions didn’t go away, but now I was afraid to share them. I began to wonder, “Who are my people?” That experience in Sunday school wasn’t the only thing keeping me from using my voice. All through childhood, I was teased for my disability: stuttering. I feared disappointing certain adults in my life for the questions I wanted to talk about, and I feared ridicule from my peers for the way I talked. This combination wrecked my self-esteem.
Thankfully, there were a few teachers, guidance counselors and coaches who saw something in me that I failed to see in myself. Their influence set me on the path to earn an academic scholarship to Wabash College, which included the opportunity to play football and run track. But I still lacked an understanding of who I really was and what I was capable of. That is, until my college football coach – a strong Christian – counted me as one of his people. Coach Neathery had this crazy idea to send 20 football players to Botswana, Africa on a mission trip to share the Gospel and teach American sports to children, villagers and prisoners. I thought it was a great idea – just not a great idea for me.
Having never been out of the country, feeling uneasy in my walk with Christ and not having any money to afford this trip, I gave my coach an emphatic no. Two weeks later, Coach Neathery called me and said, “Derrin, hear me out. I need you to pack your bags and get your passport. Your trip to Botswana has been paid in full.” There was a long silence on my end of the phone as I thought to myself, “I’m out of excuses.” I finally mustered up the courage to say, “Okay. I’ll go.” In our preparation for Botswana, Coach Neathery assigned me the task of telling the story of Jairus’ daughter, who Jesus raised from the dead in Mark 5:21-43 – out loud, in front of people. Me, with my stutter! As I practiced teaching this story, I could not get the words out.
Because of my stutter, practice times that should have taken me five minutes took me 15. I couldn’t imagine speaking this story in front of hundreds of unreached people on another continent. But the day came, and we flew to Maun, Botswana. Two days into our trip, my turn came. Coach would not let me off the hook. He tapped me on my shoulder and nudged me in front of a crowd of more than 250 people.
I took a deep breath and began to speak the story. “Rise, little one,” Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter. To my surprise, and to the surprise of many of my teammates, this story came out of my mouth without a stammer. Instead of getting bogged down by my stuttering, the message came out smoothly, with clarity and reverence. Immediately afterward, an older gentleman ran up to me and said that those words had changed his life. God was helping me find my people, and they were helping me find myself.
As I reflected on this experience in Botswana, I kept hearing a still, small voice whisper, “You did not make your mouth move… I did.” That voice ignited a courage and passion that willed my heart to seek out every opportunity I could to serve in God’s big world. After Botswana, I traveled to serve in South Africa, Ethiopia, Israel, Palestine, Mexico, New Orleans, New York, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Through each of these experiences that I had serving others and building relationships, my confidence grew and my stutter – as well as my fear of it – began to fade.
The growth I experienced in my travels brought up a new question: “What if I had these experiences at a younger age? How would my life be different?”
This was the question that helped lay the groundwork for the organization I would start in 2010. In founding ProAct Indy, I have been able to provide opportunities to at-risk youth that I wish had been offered to me during my own childhood. ProAct Indy involves at-risk youth in public service that educates, delights and inspires the youth and those they serve. Since our inception, we have grown from serving 11 boys and girls in 2010 to serving and engaging over 10,000 boys and girls in 2018 in community service and leadership training that focuses on creating and building transformational relationships to empower communities from the inside out.
My own transformation has been all about “finding my people” and, in turn, allowing myself to be found by Christ and His people. I’ve gone on to find like-minded people as business partners who donate their financial resources and their time to volunteering alongside our youth. Adults and youth, privileged and poor – we are teaming up and making it known that all are capable of contributing in significant ways. For me, it’s important to see the people we serve as made in the image of God – as stewards of resources, not victims of circumstance. My coach’s mentoring and encouragement led me to see myself as someone capable and worthy of giving to others. Now, I can offer the same opportunity for youth in the most vulnerable communities, in their most vulnerable years, to find self-confidence and life purpose.
God has people everywhere, and He seems to like linking us up. He’s helped me find people in my city, and in the process, He’s helped me find the courage to go on speaking.
What brought you to EDGE?
I mentioned earlier that my story hinges on the fact that God has always willed me to seek out and find my people. So when I took my wife and kids to visit Soma Church one Sunday, I heard EDGE’s CEO, Dave, speak about EDGE Mentoring and the EDGE|X leadership conference. After he finished speaking, I grabbed his business card, met him for breakfast, he invited me EDGE|X, and the rest is history. I’m always seeking growth opportunities, so the prospect of growing with a group of men and being mentored by a someone who could help guide me was exactly what I was looking for.
In what ways have your mentor and EDGE group helped you grow personally, professionally or spiritually?
My wife challenged me with a question I will never forget. She said, “Derrin, you have a lot of head knowledge, but do you have heart knowledge?” I had no clue what that meant at the time, but EDGE offered me an opportunity to explore that. [My mentor] Doug and my EDGE group have helped me realize this heart knowledge more and more. Because I no longer feel like I am on an island, I can be open and vulnerable with a group of men who understand what it is like to be Christian, a father, a professional and a husband. Our group is relatively new, but I am excited for us to keep “going there” with one another. I value the fellowship.
What’s the biggest lesson(s) you’ve learned from your mentor so far?
The biggest lesson Doug has taught me so far was that our relationship with our wife and children needs to take the utmost priority in our lives. As someone who is accused of being a workaholic, I tend to unintentionally prioritize my work over my family. Doug’s guidance has helped me become more introspective toward how I live and work. I’ve been more intentional about putting my phone down at home, turning off my computer, and really priding myself in the interests of my son and daughter. I still have a lot of growing to do, but I’m confident that Doug’s wisdom will help me grow in this area of life.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out in your career?
I founded ProAct at the ripe age of 22. I don’t know how many people leave college and to wait tables and use half of their tips to start a nonprofit, but that's the path I chose and it was not easy. So I wish I had taken more time to learn about myself. I needed to learn my strengths, weaknesses, and more quickly surround myself with people in areas in which I need the most growth. I also didn’t quite understand the value of a mentor when I first began my career. If I had leveraged the relationships I had better earlier on, I guarantee I would have avoided the mistakes I made early on in my personal and professional life.